By Brian Kaufman
We all have them. In some sort of order or disarray, a growing pile of TBR. It’s a compulsion. Getting groceries. Pick up a book. Going to the movies. Slip into Barnes and Noble while you wait. At the airport. Oooh, new best seller. Maybe during the pandemic, we’ve slowed down, but have you checked your Kindle list or your Audible queue recently?
We all know someone who recommends a book they just finished.
There’s a word for it. Tsundoku. It’s a term that originated in the Meiji era in the early nineteenth century. It represents multiple elements of our book habits. To pile things up for later and to read. So, it isn’t only us and it isn’t a new thing.
Though I’ll never run out of books, I’ll eventually run out of time. I can’t guarantee that Heaven is the giant library I’ve imagined, so I guard my remaining reading choices carefully. This explains why I occasionally ditch a book unfinished.
Writers aren’t the only ones to abandon a book. Readers do, too. In fact, some books go notoriously unfinished.
Several years ago, Goodreads compiled a list of classic books that readers gave up on. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 topped the list. I must confess to starting (and not finishing) Heller’s book though I loved Something Happened—one of his later novels. I also started and failed to finish Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses—all on the Goodread’s list.
Other similar lists have been attempted.
Author Gwen Branwen used Goodreads, social networking data, and complex statistical analysis to compile a list of books most often begun and abandoned. The Top five are surprising.
J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy
Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L James
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Wicked by Greg Maguire
I’ve finished four out of the five.
Why don’t people finish books? Some just aren’t good, and reading tastes vary. But those can’t be the only reasons for quitting. When thinking about Branwen’s list, I wonder if readers might have expected J. K. Rowling’s book to be like the Potter series and been disappointed. Rowling currently writes an outstanding private eye series under a pen name—Galbraith—to avoid similar problems with expectations.
Maguire’s book became a famous stage play. Perhaps theatergoers weren’t expecting the post-modern literary romp they found in the novel.
Sometimes, books are simply hard to read.
Professor Jordan Ellenberg came up with a readability scale called the Hawking Index. Yes, named the author of A Brief History of Time. Ellenberg used read-through statistics from Kindle eBooks. At the low end of the scale, he noted Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, finished by only 1.9 percent of readers. By contrast, 98.5 percent of readers finished all 784 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Personality may be a factor. Jen Doll, writing for the Atlantic, theorized that type-A personalities were more likely to lose patience and fail to finish a book. Type B personalities were more likely not to begin one that seemed daunting.
I wonder if any of the various statistical methods include those pesky to-be-read piles.
My wife Judith has towering stacks of unread books next to the bed. For every book she finishes, she comes home with two more. Despite her protestations, she is never going to win the battle. Again, if it wasn’t a common thing, there wouldn’t be a word for it.
I make fun of her pile, but I won’t let her glance at my Kindle. It turns out that you can store a lot of unfinished books in one of those things!